I have enjoyed a handful of visits to the Heritage Farm at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. I’ve strolled the picturesque gardens, bursting with colorful flowers, herbs and vegetables. I’ve walked the grassy stream-side trails that hug towering limestone walls and meander into the quiet outdoors of northeast Iowa. I had seen it all, or so I thought.
On a recent visit, a local gave me an insider tip and introduced me to a part of the farm I never knew existed. Just a short drive from Seed Saver's headquarters is a historic 19th century apple orchard where hundreds of apple varieties grow. My September visit was the perfect time to explore this secret spot where visitors may take – at no charge and on an honor system – any apples that have fallen to the ground. Entry signage gave two instructions: First, picking apples from the trees is off limits. Second, some of the apples taste admittedly terrible; make sure to perform an on-the-spot taste test.
I entered the orchard and began my hunt. I was looking for quantity, not quality. My husband would use these heirloom apples to supplement his existing inventory for homemade applesauce.
The orchard is home to trees of all shapes and sizes, each marked to identify their name and ancestry. And on this warm fall day, sunshine danced on apples, the likes of which I’d never seen. All colors. All sizes. Some dimpled. Some smooth. Some pretty. Some not-so-much.
The grove is as much a living museum as it is an orchard, showcasing varieties that existed around 1900 but have since become extinct or have died out. In an effort to halt “genetic erosion,” Seed Savers has obtained all the pre-1900 varieties that still exist in government and private collections. Just as they’ve dedicated themselves to preserving heirloom flowers and vegetables, they’re saving what’s perhaps America’s most iconic fruit.
Now, let the canning commence.